April 2007

According to a Pentagon survey, there are 1,800 Wiccans in the armed forces.  The Wiccan faith is mentioned in official handbooks for military chaplains and noted on each Wiccan soldier’s dog tags.

But until this month, they could not have the symbol of their faith, the pentacle, engraved on their military headstone.  That space was reserved for crosses, the Star of David and 36 other approved religious symbols.

Here’s a picture of the pentacle that signifies the Wiccan faith.  Still unsure of what Wicca really is?  Here’s the Wikipedia definition.  The photo is used with permission from Elizabeth Winterbourne of Pagan-Wholesale, which owns the copyright.

On Friday, April 20, The Department of Veteran Affairs settled a lawsuit brought by family members of fallen soldiers who were professed Wiccans. 

From the New York Times article:

The group attributed the delay to religious discrimination. Many Americans do not consider Wicca a religion, or hold the mistaken belief that Wiccans are devil worshipers.

“The Wiccan families we represented were in no way asking for special treatment,” the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said at a news conference Monday. “They wanted precisely the same treatment that dozens of other religions already had received from the department, an acknowledgment that their spiritual beliefs were on par with those of everyone else.”


Last week we brought you the first part of a series concerning the use of unsolicited email to promote a funeral home and cemetery.

You can read the Part 1 here.

I’ve interviewed both Robin Richter (the person who received the email) and Sharon Blackburn (the sales counselor who sent the email to dozens of people) and will be bringing those interviews to you tomorrow.

PICTURED ABOVE:  John Winter and his wife Karen, both of whom were
mentioned in the unsolicited email sent by Sharon Blackburn to offer a free
Simplicity Planner to those who had signed the online guestbook for John.

But before I share each side, you should know that I am not a seasoned journalist.  This issue was brought to my attention because of the nature of this website.  Final Embrace is primarily a forum to discuss funeral home marketing and management and as a place for me to share ideas and my own perspective.

When I began investigating this incident, I had no idea the level of complexity involved or the difficulty I would find in trying to present a fair story.  Having sifted through the details of this tale and continuing to gather facts and reactions, I am surprised that journalists are ever able to provide a fair accounting of any story without including their own bias.

Or maybe most journalist DO have an agenda when reporting stories and you ARE getting a biased reporting most of the time.  Hmm…

So, before I give you all the dirty details of this sordid story (don’t the words ‘sordid’ and ‘dirty’ already make you think a certain way?) I’ll let you in on my own take.

I hate subversive pre-need marketing.  I loathe it.  If I had easy access to a better thesaurus, I’d write a few more sentences about my disdain and disgust for subversive pre-need marketing.

Why am I so averse to it?  Because most of it becomes aggressive and predatory.  Pre-need agents and their managers, egged on by corporate bosses who ache to provide higher quarterly numbers to please stockholders, quickly exhaust the three or four reasonable, pleasant ways of generating funeral pre-arrangement plans and soon find themselves tricking or badgering their targets into purchasing burial plans.

Need proof that these tactics are used?  How many chargebacks (cancelled contracts) do you see in a given time period?  In Florida, all arrangements made away from the funeral home are subject to a three-day no-penalty cancellation period. 

When I worked in a large, pre-need focused funeral home, we saw regular chargebacks.  And while these cancellations hurt the prospective client, who had wasted time hearing a sales pitch he/she didn’t want to accept, they also hurt the funeral home in lost productivity because of the paperwork, lowered morale (salespeople are proud folks who take pleasure in closing a deal and take cancellations especially hard) and tarnished public image.

It’s even worse for funeral directors and the staff handling at-need services; they don’t have anything to do with pre-need sales (in most cases) but still have to battle the negative perception of the public regarding predatory funeral pre-need sellers. 

Of course, I’ve spent most of my career serving at-need families, but I also held a state-issued insurance license for a few years and sold funeral pre-arrangements, mostly to walk-in customers, so I understand some of the arguments of the pre-need agent.

However, I use this blog to discuss marketing your funeral home, not selling a bunch of pre-need at the expense of your brand image or the community goodwill that can, in lean times, sustain your business, so I will not recommend you take the same actions that Ms. Blackburn took to tell her community about the importance of pre-planning.

MY OPINION (in 35 words or less):  Ms. Blackburn’s words are misleading.  She interrupted a conversation about grief and tried to sell her pre-planning services.  Robin was right to be upset.  Ms. Blackburn may, in fact, have had good intentions. 

TOMORROW:  An audio interview with Robin Richter and a summary of my non-recorded interview with Sharon Blackburn.

WEDNESDAY:  Reaction from Stowers Funeral Home, the firm that actually handled the arrangements for Mr. Winter.

LATER IN THE WEEK:  The role of the media (TBO.com and Legacy.com) in pre-need sales.

BONUS:  See the well-made tribute to John Winter hosted by Making Everlasting Memories (owned by SCI/Dignity).

I’m thinking of starting a “Search of the Week” to highlight the words or phrases that people use in internet searches that lead them to this website.

Search of the Week for 4/28/07:  SATISFIED EYEGLASSES

Yes, someone searched for “SATISFIED EYEGLASSES” and found us.  And yes, the search term was in all caps.

Maybe it’s the name of a band?  Anybody else got an idea why one brave soul typed “SATISFIED EYEGLASSES” into a search engine and crossed their fingers, waiting for an answer to their quest?

John Winter, a popular Tampa, Florida area weather forecaster shocked his friends and family by committing suicide.  He left a grieving wife, Karen Winter and a stunned community that searched for ways to grieve his death and discuss the terrible circumstances of life that would lead him to take his own. 

As John worked for a media company, tributes were widespread in the local newspapers, their online counterparts and on television.  My mother, Robin Richter, chose to log onto the Tampa Tribune’s website (TBO.com) to read about his passing.

There, she found a link for a guestbook, hosted by Legacy.com, where thousands of other readers has expressed their sympathy and discussed their grief.

While signing the book, she was asked to disclose her email address and given the option to allow others who viewed the guestbook to email her.  Acquainted with grief as she is (her son, me, is involved in the funeral industry and she has been responsible for arrangements for many of her own familymembers) she chose to allow others to contact her.

This is the only email she has received in response to her signature in the online guestbook.  As you read, imagine for a moment that you had signed a guestbook for a friend and were receiving this email in response to your grief.

Date: April 15, 2007

Dear friend:

Recently, our hearts were touched by the sudden, unexpected and tragic death of John Winter. The Greater Tampa Bay television audience has felt the loss of not only one of our finest weather forecasters… but also someone we considered to be our friend for the past 13 years.

As I write this letter to you, I ponder the reasons why John – someone so full of life… so friendly… so seemingly happy… would choose to end his life. Unfortunately, we may never know the whole story behind John’s decision. What we do know, however, is the life of a man who we welcomed into our homes daily, is now gone… forever.

For some of you, John’s sudden death is still fresh on your mind and the pain in your heart, unimaginable. You wonder if you’ll ever get over this tragedy and feeling of loss. For others, you have moved on with your life – accepting the fact that death is simply a part of living. No matter what you’re feeling… I would encourage you to look deep into your own hearts and ask yourself one simple question:

If something unexpectedly were to happen to me today, would my family and loved ones find comfort in knowing that I had already taken care of pre-planning that one ‘final’ event in my life?

The decisions you make today will have a profound effect on your loved ones tomorrow.  If you’re having a difficult time believing this statement… just think about John’s wife, his parents, his friends, his extended family at WFLA News Channel 8 and the impact on those of us who looked forward to seeing his smiling face come across our television screen each and every morning.

I was one of the fortunate people in the Greater Tampa Bay listening area. While employed at Media General I had the pleasure of knowing John – albeit briefly. The split second it took for John to make the decision to end his life has certainly had a profound effect on me and each of you who loved John.

As a Family Service Counselor for Garden of Memories and Myrtle Hill Memorial Park, I counsel families struggling with tough decisions in the aftermath of losing a loved one. For this reason… and most especially as a tribute to John Winter, I have a gift I would like to deliver to you – free of charge. The Simplicity Planner.

The Simplicity Planner is a booklet filled with information on subjects such as Wills, Living Wills, Veteran Benefits and Social Security benefits. Additionally, it has page after page for you to record your vital statistics, pertinent medical, insurance and financial information.  There are numerous pages for you to record your earliest memories, favorite song, favorite color, fondest memories of your childhood, etc., etc. Most important of all (at least to me) are the pages specifically set aside for you to write notes or letters to your loved ones.

All of this information is compiled in one booklet and will prove to be invaluable to your family and friends when you are no longer here to guide them through – what will certainly be – the stormiest days of their lives.

I believe John would have wanted you to have this Simplicity Planner. If for no other reason, to help answer some of the questions and ease the burden that Karen Winter has undoubtedly had to deal with since April 5, 2007.

Making the commitment to receive this Planner – today – will prove to be an everlasting gift given to those who love you and you love most.

Please call me at 813-626-3161 (extension 226) to arrange a convenient time to meet with you. I promise I’ll visit with you only as long as it takes to answer any questions you may have.


Sharon Blackburn
Family Service Counselor
Garden of Memories and Myrtle Hill Memorial Park
4207 East Lake Avenue
Tampa, FL 33610

Ms. Blackburn works for Stewart Enterprises, the company behind the “Simplicity Planner.”  Devised as a sales tool, the planner allows the company to give away a “premium” gift to prospective clients.

I’ve got some pretty strong ideas about this type of sales technique.  Of course, before I share them, I’d like to share both Robin’s (the consumer’s) side of the story and Sharon’s (the sales counselor’s) side of the story.  I’ve interviewed each and will be bringing them to you next week.

One thought for the weekend:  Sharon claims that her boss knows of the email she sent out and gave it the “thumbs-up.” 

In a post I’ve stolen almost completely from his site, Confessions of an Executive Restaurant Recruiter, Carl Chapman reveals:

Top 10 Ways to Blow Getting the Job

Inappropriate dress – showing up for the interview in attire that is not proper for your industry and position.

Not showing desire – not showing the interviewer(s) at every point that you are ready, willing, and able to make a job change and that you want to work for them.

Not exhibiting a “can do” attitude – when asked to provide additional info, take additional tests, go to a different location, or do anything out of the ordinary; hesitating and making it out to be a hardship on you.

Talking badly about your former/current employer – mentioning information with a negative attitude or tone in your voice or really talking derogatorily about your employers.

Discussing your personal life – talking about things in your personal life to such a degree that it could cause negative feelings or outcome with the prospective employer.

Asking for too much money – when negotiating, going beyond the reasonable limits that have been pre-discussed with your recruiter, the hiring authority, or stated in the job ad.

Inflexibility with regard to location – unwillingness to consider relocation or working in a particular location that may require a longer commute than you would enjoy, for some period of time.

History of job hopping – moving from one company to another (more often than not, at the same level) so frequently that you look unstable.

Lack of knowledge – not knowing about your business and profession, and not knowing about the company where you are interviewing.

Poor language skills – inability to communicate effectively, inability to articulate ideas using proper English, using curse words or slang during the interview.

If you’re looking for a job, I’d suggest this is a good starting point.  If you’re hiring others, this is a good list of things to watch out for.

I’d add a few of my own, specifically for the funeral industry:

Ways to NOT Get a Funeral Job

Try to Save the World – No one likes a know-it-all.  Yes, you might be a good addition to the firm, but the funeral home existed before you applied for the job and it’ll keep functioning after they show you the door.

Pursue a Funeral Career on a Whim – I’m not hiring anyone who decided last week or last month to be a funeral director.  Be able to show me that you’ve made the necessary decisions and understand the special requirements (legal and otherwise) to be a funeral professional.  As a plus, this shows your prospective employer that you can formulate a plan and execute it.

Get All Your Funeral Knowledge from TV – Sure, CSI and Six Feet Under are great shows, but they aren’t realistic.  Make sure you know the real industry before you try talking about it with a seasoned pro like me.  Otherwise, you’re going to look stupid and you’ve wasted my time and yours.

Tell Me When You Can Work – This industry is very busy, with some homes open 24/7 and busy times when you’ll go for 24 or 48 hours straight.  While I’d like to accommodate your desire to be off every Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, while also giving you every third Monday off to visit your kid’s school, I really need an employee who will go above and beyond at a moment’s notice.  If I haven’t decided that you are the right fit for my firm before you share that you can’t work on Mayan holidays, I’ll decide pretty quickly after that revelation. 

I’ve been doing some consulting work (freelance and, incidentally, free of charge) for a young man with a fascinating vision; He wants to create the first nationally-branded removal service.

Once just a backup option for funeral directors with a small staff of full-time employees, removal services have gained popularity in recent years.  The acquisition-happy days of the eighties and nineties replaced owners with managers, and, in turn, changed much of funeral service from a lifestyle to a job.

Other factors in the marketplace (dwindling profit margins, migration toward cremation, lack of available talent) have forced many short-staffed and harried funeral home owners to stop making night removals, preferring to send a removal service.  Several SCI firms that I follow have even stopped making removals all together; they contract everything through a service.

My experience with removal services has been mixed.  Several firms that attempted to serve our needs used subpar employees.  While I certainly endorse anyone’s right to smoke off the job, I grimaced every time a family referred to one removal service employee as “smelling like an ashtray.”

And since most removal services are locally-owned and usually owner-operated, customer service is often “whatever the boss feels like doing today.”  Overworked and understaffed removal services can leave you waiting for service for hours.  Others have trouble getting employees that will show the dedication required by the work.

This young man is fresh from another industry.  He’s only worked in the funeral industry for a few short months.  And while he found success building a company in a separate field, I can’t help but wonder if he can create a successful national brand in an industry that still chooses business relationships based upon backslaps and “who you like.” 

Also, I worry that already-stressed funeral directors will have little time to give him the chance he’ll need to prove his worth.  It can be detrimental to sever a relationship with your current removal service, regardless of their inattentiveness or inappropriate behavior, just to give an unknown an opportunity.

Do I think a nationally-branded removal service will work?  Of course I do.  Do I think he’ll make it happen in the next two or three years?  Please.  This is a ten-year plan at least.  But I hope he tries.  I could use the consulting money once he gets moving!

I was reminded by Candace of In Repose, of the story of Liviu Librescu, professor at Virginia Tech and one of the victims of the shooter.

Dr. Liviu LibrescuIn short, Professor Librescu saved the lives of his students by barracading the door while they exited the classroom by jumping out a window.  The killer, having attempted to push open the door, fired shots through the barricade, killing Professor Librescu.  Librescu was a Romanian-born Holocaust survivor.  He was 76 years old.

You can read a full memorial to this sweet man by clicking here.

This is a fascinating and hopeful side to this horrific story.  That a man who had mentored and inspired so many young lives would go out of his way and risk his own life to prolong theirs is heartwarming and heartrending all at the same time.

The funeral professional in me is usually overly-analytical, so the news of this crazed gunman started my mind thinking about logistics, rather than the emotional side to this story.  I immediately went into the “you don’t know them” mindset that funeral professionals have that allows us to do our jobs without breaking down.

But when the story of Professor Librescu hit the airwaves, I cried like a baby.  Not because I was sad for him; I wasn’t, necessarily.  (I should explain that I am sad for his family and friends, but he no longer needs my sadness and would, could he speak, tell me to get over it, I do believe.)

I was struck by the highly-sensible acts he took in the face of the senseless acts of the killer.  I regret that the students whose lives he saved cannot ever properly thank him for his heroism. 

We need few reminders that evil exists in our world.  The story of Liviu Librescu reminded me that good still exists.

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